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Nine years on from her Wimbledon doubles win… where is Peng Shuai?

It is Nine years ago, Peng Shuai’s beaming face lit up Wimbledon’s Center Court, where she shared a little insight into her spirit of fun and adventure after winning the women’s doubles title with her Taiwanese partner.

Her partner was Su-wei Hsieh, a childhood friend with whom she had shared everything, including money and clothes, when they were teenagers. They were nicknamed “Crab Duo,” Peng explained with a laugh, because their surnames together sound like the Mandarin word for crab.

They didn’t expect to beat Australia’s Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua. They played doubles on both sides because as children they were too small to hold their rackets with one hand.

Those were the days of their lives. A year later, a French Open title followed, when the pair was briefly the number 1 in the world. But when they joked about retiring from SW19 – ‘because it doesn’t get any better’ – Peng could not have imagined that the sport would end for her.

She “announced” her departure from the game four months ago, during one of two bizarre interviews designed to legitimize the Chinese state’s process of making her disappear.

More than 18 months have now passed since China removed Peng from the internet and, in effect, from public life. She had publicly accused a 75-year-old former Communist Party official of sexual assault. The Chinese state’s response to international requests to know her whereabouts speaks volumes about its inflated sense of invincibility.

There was an eerie, staged appearance with IOC President Thomas Bach, who, in a ludicrous attempt to bolster the credibility of the Beijing Winter Olympics, insisted that the young woman was okay after he resolved the issue of the sexual assault charge.

It's been nine years since Peng Shuai's beaming face lit up Wimbledon's Center Court

It’s been nine years since Peng Shuai’s beaming face lit up Wimbledon’s Center Court

Shuai and Su-wei Hsieh didn't expect to beat Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua

Shuai and Su-wei Hsieh didn’t expect to beat Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua

Peng appeared at a Winter Olympics event, but was led away and taken into a waiting private car even before the medal ceremony. In February, she appeared for an “interview” with L’Equipe conducted from a Beijing hotel room where the Chinese Olympic Committee chief of staff, Wang Kan, watched her from the doorway and translated her answers to prearranged questions.

This is despite Peng always comfortable speaking to reporters in English. Peng, who wore a Chinese state uniform, announced her retirement. L’Equipe’s journalist Marc Ventouillac says he couldn’t be sure she was safe.

If Peng was born in a country that offers protections against sexual abuse and allows criticism of government officials, you could imagine that next week she would be back on the scene of her greatest triumph.

She then announced her retirement during one of two interviews that may have been intended to give legitimacy to the process of her disappearance from the Chinese state.

She then announced her retirement during one of two interviews that may have been intended to give legitimacy to the process of her disappearance from the Chinese state.

After all, the 36-year-old was the first Chinese player to win the WTA Tour Championships (with Hsieh) and only the fifth to win a Grand Slam title. She won’t be at Wimbledon, of course, although some members of the tennis club seem to be more concerned about that than others.

The WTA made the bold and creditable decision to withdraw from China over fears of her despite the financial blow they would face. But at this year’s Australian Open, activists in the ‘Where’s Peng Shuai?’ T-shirt clothing was confiscated by guards before a public outcry forced the tournament director to withdraw.

We were reminded on Wednesday that the All England club is relaxed about taking China’s money, no questions asked, when they staged an event to praise Chinese company OPPO, the “official smartphone partner” of the tournament.

At the Australian Open, fans wore 'where is Peng Shuai' t-shirts in support of the tennis star

At the Australian Open, fans wore ‘where is Peng Shuai’ t-shirts in support of the tennis star

More than 18 months have now passed since China removed Peng from the internet and, in effect, from public life

More than 18 months have now passed since China removed Peng from the internet and, in effect, from public life

If there were genuine concerns about Peng, whom the WTA has still not contacted, Wimbledon could have passed on that blatant sponsorship deal. OPPO has been integral to the Chinese state’s drive to bolster its own reputation in the global microchip sector.

Needless to say, Ian Hewitt, president of the All England Club, sees no contradiction in teaming up with an icon of the progressive nation that China would have us consider, while correctly considering every player from Russia as persona non grata.

On that golden July day in 2013, there was a brief moment of awkwardness when the question of whether Peng would partner with a Taiwanese, whose country China does not recognize, surfaced after the final. In the Taiwanese China Post’s report the following day, Peng claimed she did not believe Taiwan was a country.

Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who accused a high-ranking politician of rape, sat down for an interview with foreign media in Beijing - with Chinese officials visible in the room

Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who accused a high-ranking politician of rape, sat down for an interview with foreign media in Beijing – with Chinese officials visible in the room

If correct, the report suggests that Peng’s loyalty to her country surpassed even her friendship with Hsieh, though that didn’t matter to the Chinese state.

Meanwhile, a grainy video has been circulated by Chinese state media claiming to show Peng at a juniors’ event last weekend.

One would certainly hope that the All England Club’s rules banning ‘objects or clothing’ containing ‘political statements’ wouldn’t stop many from thinking about the gleeful 2013 champion for the next two weeks at Wimbledon. “Where’s Peng Shuai?” Nobody knows.

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